Pentecost 12 (August 27, 2006)
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” . . . On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (NIV)
Lord, To Whom Shall We Go?
Who has not resonated ever so strongly at times with the author of Ecclesiastes when he writes in the opening words of his book, “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” (Ecc. 1:2 NIV) The New English Bible translates this verse, “Emptiness, emptiness, says the Speaker, emptiness, all is empty.” The Revised English Bible translates it perhaps still more vividly: “Futility, utter futility, says the Speaker. Everything is futile.”
Have you not known times like that when you just wanted to “chuck it all” – to throw up your hands in frustration and say “forget it!” – to feel so exasperated with the world that you want it to stop so that you can get off – to feel as though all the promise that seems deeply imbedded in the world is false, a sham, a deception, a fraud incapable of fulfilling what you thought and hoped it would be able to?
I’m not talking about committing suicide. I am simply talking about the utter futility one sometimes feels with the way things are when there seems to be no reasonably acceptable solution to the dilemma one faces. They are the times when we symbolically (or maybe really!) beat our heads against a wall as we feel the absolute vexation of how little sense we can make of life or of the circumstances within which we find ourselves or of the seeming hopelessness of a situation.
Who has not had such moments? Surprisingly enough, those moments are not always experienced in the midst of distress or trouble or sickness or monetary problems and the like. That same sense may come upon us at times when things are going well and suddenly we are confronted with the dilemma of the cartoon showing a businessman on top of a mountain saying, “Now that I have gotten here, where do I go now?” Success and well-being and health and wealth are no guarantee against moments like these. Meaninglessness and futility lurk unbidden around every corner of life.
People of faith do not find themselves immune to such moments either – and when they happen they often surprise us, causing us to wonder what good faith is if it does not immunize us against these moments. Sometimes, in fact, it is the frustration of faith itself that brings on these feelings. We read the headlines, see the nightly news, hear the radio reports of earthquakes and tsunamis, of wars and horrible acts of inhumanity, of terror and dreadful assaults on human bodies or human spirits, of tornados and hurricanes, of untold misery and the wretched plight of refugees and we cry to the highest heaven, “God, where are you? Why do you not put a stop to all this? Do you not see the terrible plight of this creation to which you have pledged your love?” We resonate with Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words of Psalm 22 are followed in turn with these words: “Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.” (Psalm 22:1, 2 NIV) Have you not felt like this on many occasions?
It is hard, at times like these, to remember all the mercies with which God has surrounded us – the blessings which have come so richly without our bidding and often (probably usually) even without our asking – the marvelous ways in which God has surrounded the entire world (even in the midst of the horror of which we have just spoken) with his unbounded care and concern. It is hard to “see through” the troubledness of our lives and of our world to recognize in turn the entire outpouring of blessings that continually come from God’s hands. Psalm 22, beginning with the agonizing cry Jesus echoed from the cross, actually becomes a psalm of hope and trust in the end! In speaking these words Jesus was not only expressing his agony, but at the same time his faith that the Father, who seemed to be oblivious to him at this moment, was not forsaking him in spite of what it seemed!!
Something of this sort appears to be happening in today’s Gospel. Earlier in this same chapter we read about how Jesus has fed five thousand people with five small barley loaves and two small fish. This has amazed the crowd so much that “they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’” But Jesus, we are told, recognized their hopes – and perhaps even their intention on the spur of the moment – to make him a bread king and he “withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” Then he crossed the lake with his disciples to Capernaum where the crowd, undeterred, hurried after him. They asked, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it (the work of God) and believe you?” They speak of the manna God had provided their ancestors in the desert. Jesus responded with an extended discourse on bread from God and the assertion that Jesus is, himself the Bread of Life, using words that associate himself with the God who had revealed himself at Sinai as “I am who I am.” “I am the bread of life,” Jesus declared.
Many felt that he had pushed the boundaries with those words. Those around him “grumbled because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven?’” You, of course, have been hearing about all these exchanges for the last four weeks, but I rehearse them here so that you can remember the mounting displeasure with the very one who had so recently pleased them no end by satisfying their hunger in the desert place. But Jesus, rather than breaking off at this point, only pushed the harder. By the time Jesus had completed this exchange, the last part of which we heard again in the first verses of today’s Gospel reading, they are saying, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Jesus pressed the issue still harder and more intensely: “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. . . I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” That was the last straw! “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” We are so attuned to these words we very likely find it hard to understand how offensive Jesus had become to his hearers by now, claiming such preposterous things. “Does this offend you?” Jesus had asked. It does indeed, they responded!
To briefly return to where we started – do we not sense in them the kind of futility that the author of Ecclesiastes wrote about and which we feel on occasion. Promising things gladden our hearts, but when the promise turns to ashes, it leaves a terrible emptiness in our heart. Jesus had just fed the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, but they quickly grew exasperated when things didn’t pan out the way they expected them to. He refused to be a king, but instead he spoke about being “the bread of life” and other such “hard things” to accept. They didn’t want words. They wanted action – and action of the sort that they, themselves, could accept – or even dictate! They didn’t get what they wanted and it frustrated them. It seemed quite apparent they had put their eggs in the wrong basket. What good were all these words in the face of what those who chased after Jesus wanted to see happen? “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” They saw futility where they had expected to find hope. They saw emptiness in words instead of full bellies. They found the words spoken by this would-be “bread of life” totally meaningless. They already had plenty of frustrations and emptiness and meaninglessness all on their own. They didn’t need more of this from Jesus who spoke in such a troubling manner.
Jesus turned to the Twelve, his “chosen ones,” and asked them whether they, too, wanted to leave him. After all, if the general populace was finding him a fraud and a deceiver, out to scam them, surely those closest to Jesus must be asking something of the same question. They knew him better than any of those who had left him. So what did they think of him?
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So spoke their chief spokesman, Simon Peter, in words so potent that they have been incorporated into the liturgy of the church just before the Gospel reading for the day. It is doubtful that they found his sayings any easier to understand or digest than those who had just left. In fact, they frequently questioned Jesus about what he meant by what he said. They surely did not respond as they did because they understood the words that much better than those abandoning Jesus. But they knew one other thing that made all the difference in the world and that made them say that he had “the words of eternal life.” That difference was this: “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Those leaving had neither come to know or believe this. For the Twelve, it was the one thing that made them stay.
This man was introduced to the readers of John’s Gospel from which today’s text is taken as “The Word made flesh.” “The Word was God and he was with God in the beginning.” In him, John asserted in those opening verses of this Gospel, resided life, the “life that was the light of men.” Could the disciples have spoken that clearly when Peter spoke up for them all, saying that they stuck with Jesus because they recognized in him the “touchpoint,” if I may use that term, with God?
Probably not, for they had yet to experience all that lay before them as they spoke to Jesus that day . . . his increasingly inflammatory exchanges with the religious authorities, his progressively more disputatious confrontations with those who would eventually arrest him, place him on religious and civic trial and eventually condemn him to the cross. Little could they comprehend at that time what lay in his or their future when they refused to turn back and no longer follow him. Yet they felt compelled to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Even when they saw the final blows being given to the life of this man the mystery within and under and behind his death remained hidden, for that matter. None who saw him hanging on the cross could begin to comprehend that this death was “a ransom for many,” a “death of death,” a “propitiation for our sins and for the sins of the whole world,” an act in which God, who “so [in this way, that is] loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” None of that would be obvious even when that which was terrible to behold with the human eye took place. And surely when the confident assertion of Peter that “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” was made, none who remained with Jesus would have had the faintest inkling of what all that confession of faith held inside the words of the confession itself.
It was in the resurrection that things began to come together for them . . . not all at once and certainly not in its entirety, for they continued to struggle to sort through all that Jesus had “begun to do and teach,” as Luke says in the opening verse of his second volume called “The Acts of the Apostles.” For what he had “begun to do and teach” had to be distilled and refined and comprehended and worked out in many different ways as they spoke and wrote and discussed this most amazing man and this most amazing work of God effected through this most unlikely form of a cross. The letters that make up the rest of the New Testament contain ways by which this early confession of Peter that in Jesus they had believed and known “the Holy One of God” was to be understood and spoken about in words given them by the Holy Spirit as they spread this word through their world.
In like fashion it is all but impossible for us here today to fully understand the power and the inner authority of the words through which we confess the presence and the grace of this Jesus crucified for us. We, too, sing or say just before we read the Gospel, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And we add our “alleluias!” We take this word and speak it with the pouring of water and the Holy Spirit uses the word through this visible form to attach us to the person of Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead. We are named with his name and he takes our name and hides it in his heart where it is safe and secure. We take this word and speak it with bread and wine so that what is “given and shed for you,” namely, Christ’s very body and blood, may nourish us as we journey through life. He who was made flesh for us, dying in that flesh for our salvation, enfleshes himself anew for us through water and bread and wine, assuring us that the words of eternal life are firmly implanted within our own fleshly hearts and lives.
In the Preface to her book Amazing Grace, subtitled “A Vocabulary of Faith,” Kathleen Norris tells of an evening when she was making a presentation on this “vocabulary of faith” when a question was addressed to her concerning the real value of these “words of faith.” “I don’t mean to be offensive,” her questioner said, “but I just don’t understand how you can get so much comfort from a religion whose language does so much harm.” Taken aback momentarily (Ms. Norris understood the question all too well, for she had, herself, been distanced from faith and its vocabulary for many years), she struggled to respond when in a moment of inspiration it came to her that the problem lay in the word “comfort.” “I said that I didn’t think it was comfort I was seeking,” Ms. Norris said, “or comfort that I’d found. Look, I said to her, as a rush of words came to me. As far as I’m concerned, this religion has saved my life, my husband’s life, and our marriage. So it’s not comfort that I’m talking about but salvation.” (pp. 3 and 4)
Peter would most assuredly have agreed with her inspired response. Comfort? Sometimes! Often, in fact. But at other times – and in more instances than we generally care to recognize -- they are terribly discomforting – very uncomfortable, in fact. Even the discomfort, however, is always designed to lead us to a salvation far beyond that for which we long in our more comfortable days.
Sometimes, though, even the most comforting of Jesus words fall on the hard ground of those times when we sense that terribly frustrating emptiness that hides within life even at its best, that sense of a meaninglessness of life that suddenly sweeps over our inner selves, that futility that infests not only the worst but also the best moments of our lives. In those times the words of Jesus sometime seem to offer little by way of comfort or direction or consolation in themselves. We are tempted to “turn back and no longer follow him.”
But then we turn to him who speaks those words and recognize through his death and resurrection that here we have no ordinary “speaker of words.” We encounter in him “the Holy One of God,” and his words take on dimensions of “eternal life,” as Peter termed them, for even when they are not “comforting words,” they are “saving words.” They are the words that can and do sink into the very marrow of bones that are vexed by the vanity of life, restoring hope in the midst of despair. They are the words of eternal life spoken by the Holy One of God. They break into our darkness with God’s own light. They tear apart death’s shadowy pall hanging over our lives and bring life to our world.
To be saved! What a marvelously wonderful promise. To be saved in the midst of meaningless frustrations – to be saved when the whole world seems empty and void – to be saved in the terrible gloom of a living death is the marvelous gift of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! In the days when we least understand life and sense an awful emptiness in its midst, we can only say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” And the saving Word enfolds us in his arms.
Hubert Beck, Retired Lutheran Pastor